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October 6, 2008    DOL Home > Newsroom > Speeches & Remarks   

Speeches by Secretary Elaine L. Chao

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Remarks Prepared for Delivery by
U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao
97th Session of the International Labor Conference
Palais des Nations
Geneva, Switzerland
Monday, June 9, 2008

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

This afternoon, I'd like to address the report on freedom of association, the strategic challenges to decent work, and the long term agenda of the ILO.

First, let me address the touchstone issue of freedom of association.

It is a fundamental principle of democracy that individuals should have the right to vote their conscience, privately, free from the threat of reprisal. This principle, which protects the integrity of national elections, is also critical in the workplace, where key economic decisions are made. The United States believes that the private ballot is an important tool for protecting workers, especially when making the decision about whether or not to join a union. Only through the private ballot can workers be assured that they will not be subject to violence or intimidation. The United States recognizes that the laws regarding the use of the private ballot in the workplace vary from country to country. But we hope that the ILO will explore and encourage the use of this important tool to strengthen national commitments to freedom of association for workers.

Now, let me turn to another important issue for workers, which is the impact of the worldwide economy on the availability of decent work. While many developed countries are currently experiencing economic challenges, the United States does not agree with the assessment of those challenges as laid out in the current report.

At the height of the depression, the U.S. workforce was about 58 million and one quarter of the entire U.S. workforce was unemployed. Today the American workforce is 153 million, and the unemployment rate is 5.5 percent, which is lower than the average 5.7 percent of the 1990's. So in the interim, the U.S. created nearly 100 million jobs. And, over the four key years of the depression, U.S. GDP growth fell by about half. Yet today, GDP growth in the U.S. is still positive.

Moreover, the economic trajectories of many developing countries today have improved significantly. 2007 was the fifth consecutive year in which growth in developing countries exceeded 6 percent — a record never previously achieved. And the IMF expects this growth to continue in 2008 at the rate of 6.7 percent, and then continue beyond that to 2013.

While growth in developed countries has had an impact on the developing world, in the long run internal economies policies are ultimately far more important. Without internal policies that create the climate for growth and job creation, a country will never develop regardless of the external environment. As noted by the IMF, the developing countries that have adopted free market reforms and opened themselves to trade are clearly performing the best and delivering the most for workers.

Indeed, if there is a comparison to be made between the severe economic contractions of the 1930's and today it is in the area of trade, which is not mentioned in the report. Then, as now, protectionist sentiments are rising that could cause irreparable harm to workers if implemented.

What can Labor Ministries do to help workers thrive in today's global environment? In a joint 2007 paper on trade and employment, the WTO and ILO concluded that modern economies need to constantly reallocate resources to respond to changing economic conditions. Labor ministries can support the adjustment process by trimming unnecessary regulation, allowing workers and business the flexibility to do what is best for them, and ensuring that workers have access to the education and training they need to succeed in a modern economy.

Looking forward, the United States hopes that the ILO will continue to focus on its core mission, which is:

  • Building capacity in labor and employment ministries, especially in worker training;
  • Promoting flexible workforces that can cope with rapidly changing conditions;
  • Helping to ensure workplace protections and adherence to internationally recognized core labor standards; and
  • Focusing on the economic policies that promote job creation.

By focusing on its core mission, and strengthening worker protections through the private ballot, the ILO can continue to ensure that its mission will remain relevant in the 21st century.

Thank you.

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